Education reformer Betsy DeVos moved one step closer to becoming secretary of education on Tuesday after receiving the recommendation of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.
DeVos, a philanthropist and supporter of school choice, narrowly cleared the committee on a party-line vote after a contentious hearing. Members of the committee approved the nomination 12-11, making DeVos the first Trump cabinet appointee to receive zero Democratic votes at the committee level. She passed after Sen. Lamar Alexander (R., Tenn.), the committee chair who served as education secretary under President George H.W. Bush, cast a tie-breaking vote.
DeVos appeared before the committee for more than three hours during one of the most contentious confirmation hearings of the new administration. Committee Democrats grilled the nominee about school funding, special education, and guns in school. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) went so far as to question whether DeVos was qualified for the role, speculating that her family's financial support for the Republican Party inspired the nomination.
"I don't mean to be rude, but do you think if you were not a multi-billionaire, if your family has [sic] not made hundreds of millions of dollars in contributions to the Republican Party that you would be sitting here today?" Sanders asked.
"As a matter of fact I do think that there would be that possibility. I have worked very hard on behalf of parents and children for the last almost 30 years," DeVos said.
The nation's two largest teachers unions, the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers, have voiced fierce opposition to DeVos. The committee's 11 Democrats have received about $740,000 in campaign donations from those unions. Sanders has been the largest beneficiary of teachers union political contributions on the committee, raising $144,586 from both groups.
While she did not win support from any committee Democrats, DeVos has attracted bipartisan support for her education reform advocacy. Former Connecticut senator and Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Lieberman introduced her nomination before the committee. Lieberman serves on the board of the American Federation for Children, the school choice advocacy group DeVos founded in 2010.
"I know that some people are questioning her qualifications to be secretary of education, and too many of those questions seem to me to be based on the fact that she doesn’t come from within the education establishment," Lieberman told the committee. "I believe that today, that's one of the most important qualifications you could have for this job."
DeVos has spent three decades advocating for school choice reforms that allow students in failing public schools to attend charter or private schools using vouchers. She has put that reform agenda into practice in her native Michigan. In 2011, Devos and her husband founded the West Michigan Aviation Academy, a charter high school. The school is now Michigan's 69th best school out of about 900 publicly funded schools, according to U.S. News & World Report's most recent data.
DeVos's nomination will now go before the full Senate. She only needs a majority vote to be confirmed.